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Willow Way’s Sale Marks End of an Era and factories coming out of his office. He took the International style and made it indigenous. That seamless amalgamation became, in its self, a rich tradition still being explored by architects today. For half a century, visiting Willow Way had been an initiation for young designers, myself included. A lan Taniguchi, then dean at UT Austin, took seven of us there one evening in 1969 to meet O’Neil. We crowded into the little Bungalow to the left of the main house, where my attention was caught by a steady pounding coming from a low shed beyond the drive. I ambled over in the dark and looked through a window to the lit space within. I discovered an old man using a mallet and chisel to knock wood chips out of a mahogany panel. It was O’Neil’s older brother, Lynn, who was working on a screen for one O’Neil’s projects. I went inside and introduced myself. Lynn stopped, showed me what he was doing, and began to talk about the projects and people in the shop. I had worked construction while in school, a career track influenced by a reading of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I had dug foundation trenches and knocked framing together but had never seen that kind of craft in the making. Lynn was surrounded by plywood patterns, unglazed ceramics, carved screens, and lead sheets being worked down into carved forms. The floor was ankle deep in wood chips. I spent an hour mesmerized. It changed my life. For me, Willow Way became as much about Lynn Ford as it was about O’Neil. When I started teaching at UT Austin in 1971, I made it a point to take each class down to San Antonio to meet O’Neil and Lynn. I recall walking into the unlocked Ford, Powell and Carson offices one Saturday with 12 students in tow. In those days, the office was in two old back-to-back houses in King William, the historic neighborhood just south of downtown. The most famous architect in Texas was just off the foyer working at his big clam shell desk. O’Neil Willow Way, O’Neil Ford’s home from 1940 until his death in 1982, was sold became an icon, in part, late last year. An estate sale in November attracted thousands.
An era ended on November 2, 2005. It was finalized with an estate sale at Willow Way, the family compound of O’Neil and Wanda Ford. The wonderfully haphazard collection of buildings, workshops, and patios is a lesson in incremental growth. Willow Way was a mythic locale set in the chaparral between the banks of the San Antonio River and the back of Mission San Jose. For fifty years it was an oasis for architects and others involved in a bohemian renaissance that took place in San Antonio, beginning during the Great Depression. It was then that O’Neil Ford came to San Antonio to supervise the renovation of La Villita, San Antonio’s original Spanish Colonial-era neighborhood. O’Neil met and fell in love with Wanda, the vivacious daughter of a client. They married and eventually moved into her family home, Willow Way. Willow Way was always charming but it became important because O’Neil Ford had a vision. He saw the parallel between the tenants of functional modernism and the architectural heritage of San Antonio and South Texas. That heritage is a hybrid of Spanish and German building traditions, each of which had been grafted to the region—its materials, its climate, and its people. Both modernism and the South Texas vernacular advocated a stripped down honesty of material and form. Ford studied that vernacular in numerous sketch outings, then did something amazing in the homes, schools,
Eugene George, FAIA
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because he was consistent in his appearance. He was wearing his tam-o’-shanter and had a big stogie clamped in his teeth. He turned and greeted the students as if he were expecting them. They gathered around, standing at attention, while he regaled them with his story of the moment: He never should have gone corporate. All he wanted was to work on his own, designing custom homes. That’s when he had been the happiest. We left the office and drove to the South Side and Lynn’s shop. He was working over an old gas stove cooking up a skillet of molten Babbitt metal, a lead alloy recycled from old wheel bearings. As we watched, he carefully poured the shimmering liquid metal into a recessed letter “A” carved into a plank of oak. The metal cooled quickly. He turned the mold over, tapped it, and out fell a beautifully hand carved serif letter, ready for a building sign nearing completion in the office. One of the students snapped a photo of the old craftsman and the young instructor, both in glasses, baggy short sleeved shirts, and bald heads. It hangs on my wall now as a reminder of why I eventually moved to San Antonio. Twenty five years later, I assigned the opening of the Willow Way estate sale as a field trip for my sophomore design class at the UTSA College of Architecture. As I explained to the class, they would be the last generation of young San Antonio architects who would be able to experience Willow Way in anything like its original embodiment. I told them that Willow Way had been a conduit for a creative flux that had once flowed through San Antonio, an era that is still reflected in the work of local firms such as Lake/ Flato. The students would not understand the special potential of this place unless they had at least an introduction to the ideas and people that had passed through Willow Way. Most of those people are gone now and sorely missed. Willow Way, the way it was, will be missed as well. The local paper says that most of Willow Way has been bought by James Lifshutz, a secondgeneration San Antonio redeveloper with a good track record of urban infill and adaptive reuse projects. I wish him well, although I wonder what it will be like to live in a place so haunted, not by the ghosts of the dead, but by the memories of the living. J o n
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Jon Thompson, AIA, teaches at UTSA College of Architecture.
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